Canadian assistant referee Joe Fletcher ready for scrutiny of World Cup
Referee Carlos Velasco of Spain marks a line with vanishing spray during the semi final soccer match between Raja Casablanca and Atletico Mineiro at the Club World Cup soccer tournament in Marrakech, Morocco, Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. (AP / Matthias Schrader)
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, June 11, 2014 5:45PM EDT
Joe Fletcher knows there is nowhere for him to hide in Brazil.
As an assistant referee at the World Cup, every decision the 37-year-old chartered accountant from St. Catharines, Ont., makes will come under scrutiny.
It's soccer's biggest stage, before its biggest audience and will unfold before a plethora of cameras.
"Everything will get seen. Nothing will get missed," said Fletcher.
The Canadian official understands and accepts the pressure. Officials strive for years to get on FIFA's international list and then earn selection to major tournaments. The World Cup is the biggest stage for the sport.
It helps being part of a team -- Fletcher and fellow assistant Sean Hurd have worked with referee Mark Geiger since 2011. The Canadian-American-American trio has already officiated at the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup, the 2012 Olympics and the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup, among other tournaments.
"We've become like a little family," Fletcher said of the unit.
"You're expected to operate together, hang out together, live together so it comes in really handy when you actually like each other," he added.
Fletcher's threesome is one of 25 crews -- and eight "support duos" -- at the World Cup in Brazil. The good ones will keep working while those that make mistakes will not move on to the later stages.
"I literally believe this when I tell you I'm one decision away from being sent home ... it's the biggest tournament there is for world football, so for us there's nowhere to hide," Fletcher said.
"So if for some reason I have an error that impacts the outcome of a match, there are 24 other very capable trios willing to step in and be retained for the next phase," he added.
Fletcher, who was 15 when he took his first officiating course, seems to welcome the challenge. He knows he will have four or five big decisions a game, although you never know when they might come.
"If you didn't enjoy it, you wouldn't do it," he said.
Told in January, he would be part of the World Cup, Fletcher spent a week in Zurich in April with his fellow officials for fitness testing and other preparation. There have been more meetings in Brazil in advance of Thursday's tournament opener.
"They want to make certain that everybody is on the same page, that if we all see a player get knocked in the same fashion, that we came out with the same answer," he said.
The officials live together in Brazil, flying out to matches and then returning to home base where they will hold daily debriefings on the previous day's matches.
As of Wednesday, FIFA had only announced the officials for the first four matches. Other announcements will be forthcoming but Fletcher's trio will not work Group G first-round matches since the U.S. is in the pool.
Should the Americans advance, the trio will be kept from their games.
Fletcher, who expects to get about three days notice on his match assignments, says officials do their homework on everything. For example, if a team needs a certain amount of goals to move on, it may affect formation -- and how a team lines up can impact a referee's positioning.
Fletcher knows that referees get most of the attention but says there is plenty of talking between the officials during matches.
"Mark Geiger will be the guy who gets most of the plaudits. I think before you even pick up a flag and say 'Yeah I'm OK being an international assistant referee,' you kind of know that, you understand that," Fletcher said. "But I love our team because we function like one, because ultimately I'm responsible for offside, I'm responsible for the ball in and out of bounds and I'm also responsible for anything that's nearby me that Mark can't see or may have missed.
"And there isn't a case of 'Oh well he missed it, well that was his fault.' You don't think about it that. You think about it as we, we have to get this (right). I know what things are expected that the referee will call. I know there are certain things on the field of play that I'm expected to call and there are some thing that I may have to communicate over the radio and tell him 'OK, I've got a better look.' I might confirm a suspicion for him because he's maybe 70 per cent sure. But in the end our goal is just to get the decision right."
The officials will be aided by goal-line technology, something Fletcher got to experience at the FIFA Club World Cup.
"Awesome" is Fletcher's simple review of the technology, which advises officials within a second whether ball has crossed the goal-line. Their watches flash goal and vibrate 12 times.
He likes it because it works and because it does not delay the game. He is not a fan of the NFL style of instant replay checks, arguing it does not fit into soccer's timing.
FIFA officials have been checking Fletcher's workout times for months.
"They have done their best to physically and mentally prepare us for what's coming," he said.
FIFA has even provided the assistant referees with interactive DVDs on offsides.
Back home, Fletcher credits his wife Cathy -- they have boys aged seven and four -- and his employer Wormald Masse Keen Lopinski (he joined them as a co-op student in 1997) in St. Catharines for "being onboard with the dream."
It is a dream with a finite end. Top officials must step aside at 45.
There is work after that, however. Winnipeg's Hector Vergara, who worked the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, is sharing his expertise as a member of FIFA's referees committee.
Werner Winsemann was the first Canadian referee at the World Cup, working the 1974 and 78 finals.
Originally from Niagara Falls, Fletcher's job took him to St. Catharines. He will continue to do his day job while in Brazil during any down time.
"Thankfully I can do a lot remotely," he said.
"Some guys watch movies, some guys nap. I fill in my down time by getting some work done," he added.